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Capital punishment; the death penalty

Public support for, opposition to, and
alternatives to the death penalty. State moratoriums.

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Public support for the death penalty, and alternatives

The American Civil Liberties Union noted that in the 1960's and 1970's only a bare majority of Americans favored capital punishment. They believe that "mounting fear of crime, and the cynical manipulation of the death penalty issue by many politicians for their own political gain, led to a shift upwards." The death penalty now has broad public support in both the United States and Canada. 1

Surveys in the US and Canada regularly show that a sizable majority of all adults are in favor of the death penalty for convicted murderers. Depending upon the exact question asked, and the specific group asked, 37 to 63% of adults are in favor of the death penalty.

  • In 1984, individuals who give greatest support to capital punishment were found to be older, white, male, rich, urban dwellers, politically independent, and religious believers. 2 The numbers appear to increase when people believe that the crime rate as increasing.

  • In 1992, support for the death penalty was found to vary with race and faith group: 3,4
Faith Group White African-American
Fundamentalists high level of support for death penalty oppose death penalty
Other evangelicals various positions oppose death penalty
More likely shaped by: concern over criminal behavior perceptions of the law &criminal justice system
  • In 2001, an ABC News/Washington Post Poll highlighted a serious deficiency of almost all public opinion polls. They typically a simple question: whether the subject is in favor of the death penalty or not. They rarely offer alternatives to execution in their polling questionnaires. One exception was a poll released on 2001-MAY-2. It showed a public ambivalence towards the continuation of the death penalty. When asked whether or not they supported the death penalty, the public responded 63% in favor. This is a major reduction in support from the 80% level, seven years previously. Of even greater potential importance is that if life without parole is offered as an option, response is a statistical dead heat: 46% favor the death penalty; 45% favor life without any chance at parole. The ABC News/Washington Post poll also determined that most American adults believe that: 

    • The death penalty does not act as a deterrent.

    • The death penalty is applied unfairly across jurisdictions.

    • Innocent people are sometimes executed.

    • 51% of the public would support a nationwide moratorium while a commission studies whether the death penalty is being administered fairly. When they were told that just such a moratorium and study was underway in Illinois, their support rose to 57%. 5

  • In 2015-MAR, a Pew Research Center study showed that division by race and religion remains relatively unchanged:
  • Among members of Protestant faith groups, 63% favor the death penalty; 32% are opposed:
    • Among White evangelicals: 71% for / 25% against;

    • Among White mainline christians: 66% for / 27% against;

    • Among Black Protestants: 37% for / 58% against.

  • Among Roman Catholics, whose denominational leaders strongly oppose the death penalty: 53% favor the death penalty while 42% are opposed.

  • Among the "NOTAs" (those NOT Affiliated with a faith group) 48% favor the death penalty; 45% are opposed.

However, comparing 2011 and 2015 data, there has been a gradual decline in support and gradual rise in opposition to the death penalty. This may indicate increased value for life, increased awareness of the possibility of the system executing innocent people, and increases awareness that the death penalty does not have a deterrent effect on the homicide rate.

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Political attempts to abolish the death penalty in specific states and nationally:

  • 1988 & 1994: Federal laws: New federal laws were passed that expanded the number of offenses punishable by the death penalty. Although there have been no federal executions for the past 36 years, 21 federal prisoners are on death row; one was scheduled to be electrocuted in early 2001.

  • 1999-NOV: Stop federal executions: Senator Feingold introduced bill S 1917, "Federal Death Penalty Abolition Act" in 1999-NOV. It would prevent any future federal executions and would prohibit the death penalty for violations of federal law. The bill did not proceed.

  • 2000-JAN-31: IL temporary abolition: Governor G.H. Ryan of Illinois announced that he will create a moratorium on executions in that state until after an administration review of the death penalty. More details. The Illinois Legislature finally abolished the death penalty in 2011.

  • 2000-APR: Letter to the President: A number of religious groups wrote a letter to President Clinton calling on him to declare a moratorium on the federal death penalty.

  • 2000-APR: Bill introduced: According to the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations' Washington Office for Faith in Action, Senators Feingold (WI) and Levin (MI)
    "... introduced S 2463, a bill which would immediately suspend executions in the United States while a national commission reviews the administration of the death penalty.  The moratorium would bar execution of individuals sentenced under either state or federal statutes.  Currently 38 states have death penalty statutes on the books."
    The bill did not proceed. 6

  • 2005-NOV-07: Catholic bishops heavily promoted an end to death penalty:  According to ReligionLink: "U.S. Catholic bishops say they want to 'seize a new moment and new momentum' in their 25-year campaign against capital punishment. They're set to approve a new statement urging an end to the death penalty at their Nov. 14-17 meeting at a time when advocates on both sides of the issue say that opinions are more in flux than they have been in years." 7

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Some state moratoriums:

On 2000-JAN-31, Governor G.H. Ryan of Illinois announced a moratorium on executions in that state until after an administration review of the death penalty is completed. More details.

During 2000-SEP,  The Texas Civil Rights Project issued a report which called for a moratorium on executions in that state until changes can be made to the system. They recommended:

  • Changes to the selection process for defense attorneys. The American Bar Association has established standards in this area which require lawyers to have at least five years experience, and training in defense of capital cases.

  • Defense attorneys should be paid at close to the market rates.

  • Financial compensation should be guaranteed to anyone who has been wrongfully convicted.

  • Prosecuting attorneys should be subject to lawsuits if they concealed evidence from the defense, knowingly used perjured testimony or knowingly used tainted evidence. They are currently immune from prosecution.

  • Creation of a life-without-parole sentence option for capital cases.

  • Allow jurors who have doubts about the fairness of the system to serve in capital cases.

  • Not allowing crimes, that a defendant has been accused of but not convicted of, to be mentioned during sentencing hearings.

  • Consideration of the use of two juries in capital cases: one to try the individual and the other to assign the sentence.

  • Restoration of the right of habeas corpus.

  • Reinstating the previous appeals legislation.

  • Guarantee that the inmate receive a new lawyer for appeals in death cases.

  • Guarantee DNA testing of evidence for any convict that requests it.

  • Overhaul the Board of Pardons and Paroles' procedures.

  • Alter legislation to ban the execution of persons who were minors at the time of the crime.

  • Alter legislation to ban the execution of developmentally disabled persons.
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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Death Penalty," American Civil Liberties Union, at:
  2. J.E. Dison,  "Changing Attitudes Toward Capital Punishment, 1972- 1982," presented to the American Society of Criminology, 1984. Cited in GSS at:
  3. R.L. Young,  "Religious Orientation, Race and Support for the Death Penalty," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 31 (1992-MAR), Pages 76-87. Cited in the General Social Survey Data and Information Retrieval System (GSS) at:  
  4. R.L. Young,  "Religious Orientation, Race and Support for the Death Penalty," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 31 (1992-MAR), Pages 76-87. Cited in the General Social Survey Data and Information Retrieval System (GSS) at:
  5. "ABC News/Washington Post poll: The death penalty revised," 2001-MAY-02.
  6. CyberNewsletter of the Unitarian Universalist Association Washington Office, 2000-APR-28.
  7. "DEATH PENALTY: Catholic bishops leading new push for change," ReligionLink, 2005-NOV-07, at:

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Copyright © 1995 to 2015 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally published: 1995-JUN-8
Last updated 2015-AUG-04

Author: B.A. Robinson
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